Do the techniques you use to stay productive ever leave you feeling anxious or exhausted? While we all love to smash our to-do lists, we’ve noticed that some well-intentioned behaviors can become damaging or even addictive, both in the workplace and our personal lives. 

It can look like obsessive time-saving techniques, ‘productivity hacks’, overuse of technology to ‘try and get ahead’, and working long days in order to complete unfinished tasks. 

It can also look like taking wellness behaviors to the extreme – waking up at 5.00am to work out, being hounded by push notifications to meditate, or subscribing to an overwhelming amount of self-improvement podcasts. (Great if it works for you, of course! But not so much when it’s driven by the concept of an ‘ideal woman’ that we all need to live up to.)

Call it ‘hustle culture’, ‘girlboss culture’, ‘toxic productivity’ or whatever you like, this movement is sometimes seen as a form of female empowerment or feminism. But we don’t believe women’s strength lies in accomplishment. 

You’re still incredible and valuable regardless of how much you get done today.

So let’s look at why women can develop a complicated relationship with productivity, and what we should do about it.

Why do we idolize productivity?

Ever feel guilty when 5.00pm hits and you’ve still got unfinished tasks? Or when you sleep in and miss your morning workout? Or when you take five minutes to just sit and think (either intentionally, or by accidentally zoning out)?

Our culture is geared towards being always-moving and ever-busy. Here are a few reasons we think productivity is idolized.

To meet the status quo

Have a scroll on LinkedIn and you’ll probably see a barrage of posts about productivity hacks, people sharing their daily routines, and tips for managing teams more efficiently.

Sam Blum says in a Vox article:

“The productivity cult has defined American work… for the past few decades, sold by a legion of academics, MBAs, TED talkers, and self-appointed experts as a magic route to professional mastery and personal bliss.”

He notes the role that “self-help classics” such as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Getting Things Done have a role to play in why we cherish productivity. But he also marks the start of “our modern obsession” as the rise of market capitalism in the early 1980s. As US companies began to boom, driven by a focus on corporate growth, individuals adopted the view that greater productivity would lead to more positive outcomes (i.e. profit).

A similar trend has arisen with the TikTok “that girl” movement. Influencers are adopting extreme wellness-productivity techniques (like waking up at 5am everyday), as though happiness and fulfilment can be achieved through workouts, aesthetically pleasing breakfast smoothies and skincare routines alone.

While these habits work for some, they don’t define you as a ‘good person who takes care of themself’. 

To distract ourselves

Oliver Burkeman believes that we stay busy to distract ourselves from our own mortality. A bit bleak, but perhaps he makes a good point?

Our obsession with time-saving hacks and completing to-do lists might be “a means of avoiding more difficult questions, like, “Am I doing the right things in the first place?” or “What do I want to do before I die?”

Perhaps our work should be rated less on what we get out of it (money, fame, status), and more on how it aligns with our values and purpose.

To provide a sense of worth

Lots of women unknowingly attach their worth to their achievements. It might be why new moms can experience such an identity crisis when transitioning from fast-paced, output-focused work to often mundane housework and childcare responsibilities. 

Similarly, many people struggled with the limitations and change of pace when faced with lockdowns during the pandemic. It’s not surprising that lots responded to stay-at-home orders by setting new structures, routines and goals for their life and work. 

Progress gives people a sense of purpose, and that can be a good thing sometimes. But when expectations are too high, you might end up burnt out and disappointed in yourself. 

How to avoid ‘toxic’ productivity

Notice the signs (and forgive them)

Look out for toxic behaviors that might be a result of an unhealthy attitude towards productivity. This may include:

  • Overworking to the point of affecting your health or relationships.
  • Having unrealistic expectations of yourself.
  • Struggling to ‘switch off’, relax, or know what to do with spare time.

If you can relate to these, give yourself a break. Remember, we’ve been conditioned to believe that excessive productivity is the norm, but it’s not.

Do one thing at a time

The concept of ‘single-tasking’ may seem like the opposite to productivity, but focusing on one thing at a time has actually been proven to increase output and quality of work

In practise, Oliver Burkeman says this can look like, “focusing on one major project in your life at a time, or it can even be on the level of doing one specific task at a time.” 

This change in approach to work may take some getting used to, as we’re so often accustomed to doing everything at once, stretching our attention across multiple channels and tasks. But once you learn to work through the anxiety of leaving tasks untouched as you focus on one thing, you’ll learn to work that way by default.

Accept that you can’t control everything

A lot of our discomfort with single-tasking may come down to underperforming or appearing to be slow. But we shouldn’t need to (and also can’t) perform everything at once and at full capacity. We need to learn to be okay with this.

Accept that being more productive looks like letting people down sometimes due to their high expectations. And expect to be ‘let down’ by others setting boundaries for themselves, too.

Be kind to yourself

Similarly, we need to be okay with letting ourselves down occasionally. For example, you might need to prioritize rest over working out sometimes. That’s okay. 

Clinical psychologist Dr. Therese Mascardo says of toxic productivity, “you may find yourself caught in a cycle of chasing accomplishments that give you a temporary sense of worth, until that wears off and you need yet another accomplishment to make you feel valuable.”

We love this piece of advice from her: 

“Start seeing that your value is not in what you produce or accomplish, but in who you are.”

She notes the importance of working on your self-talk to heal from toxic productivity behaviors. Be kind, gentle and forgiving to yourself – “Practice learning to speak to yourself the way you would a dear friend.”

It may help to work with a therapist on your self-talk and behaviors, so you can begin to disassociate your productivity with your worth and identity. 

We believe you’re valuable and needed – just as you are.

So here’s your daily reminder that you’re great – even if you skipped breakfast, started work late, spent an hour procrastinating, didn’t complete a project on time, resorted to buying a friend a birthday cake instead of baking one… whatever reason you fell short of your ideal productivity.

Tell us what you think! Join the Girls in Tech community conversation.